Mrs M, with her short straight black hair and angular face, peered suspiciously at us, pacing the grade five class, blurting out English words at timed intervals. It was our job to translate these into Afrikaans and spell them correctly within the allocated time. I’d studied for the test as I always did and I probably could have aced it. But I was afraid. You see, I’d confused praise with love and I believed that if I failed that love would be withdrawn. Love: The lifeblood of every child.
And so I cheated. The vocab for the week was posted up at the back of the class and I snuck a look at every opportunity. I thought I got away with it.
Then the next day, there she was pacing the class again, this time calling out the marks for everyone to hear as she handed back test papers. Starting from the highest mark to the lowest. Full marks. Not me. Ok, I must be next. Nine out of ten. Not my name. Come on, come one. 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. Zero. Slam, my paper lands on my desk. The whole class goes silent. Somebody gasps. She grabs my wrist and pulls me out of the class to discuss my crime in privacy. ‘Why?’ I wonder after she has already humiliated me.
I start to cry. I don’t stop for hours.
By the end of the day she calls me back into her class, says she thinks I have learned my lesson and tears up the paper.
I never cheat again. But not because I’ve somehow become more moral from the experience, but because my terror at losing that love has just intensified. It’s one thing to not do well but cheating and getting zero would definitely be the end of me.
I wondered later what those teachers must have thought of my parents. They probably thought that if I went home to get my test signed I’d have had a beating. But the beating I believed I would’ve gotten was way worse than any physical pain. It was the beating of rejection of my being. There was no way I could stand that. No child could.
And so I empathize with children who cheat. I wonder what fear has brought them to that point. I wonder why parents and the schooling system are so focused on marks that they forget the real reason for testing a skill – To see if the work has been taught properly and understood. I wonder why nobody explains this to children, and why report cards and test scores are held up as measures of self worth.
I wonder too why we berate children for cheating without acknowledging this trait in ourselves. How we ignore our own failures when we cheat on our diet or cheat on our spouse, cheat our employers out of time as we scour Facebook or cheat the tax man to save a few bucks. How is it that we expect our children to have higher moral standards than ourselves. Why are we are unable to look past their misdemeanors and see the fear and pain and panic just below the surface? What are we teaching them really?
The brain is a very efficient organ. It will always find the quickest path to a desired result. If it perceives that the quickest way to get love and approval is to cheat (rather than to risk trying the honest way and possibly failing) then cheating will happen. Is your child’s fastest way to love and approval through good marks? Then you’re setting them up for cheating at some point in their lives. Think about the messages that you are giving with your praise or bribery, or with your withholding of affection when kids don’t do well.
If we want our children to pass honestly, then we need to change the messages that we’re giving them around what testing means, around their true worth regardless of performance, and around the unwavering love that we have for them regardless of their behavior.